Bats

Jesse Mayfield-Sheehan / Sentinel Staff

Keene SwampBats catcher Seth Caddell gets a congratulatory handshake from Keene manager Gary Calhoun last season.

It’s been 274 days since the Keene SwampBats swept the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks to win the New England Collegiate Baseball League championship.

The victory captured the Fay Vincent Sr. Cup for the sixth time in franchise history, and the first time Keene had won it at Alumni Field.

Now, with the 2020 season canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak that has challenged all facets of daily routine, it will be a summer without the SwampBats.

This means along with no competing on the diamond, there will be no celebrating the fourth of July in high-class fashion on the baseball field, no opportunity for young ball players to hang out with the hopes of one day reaching that level of baseball or softball, no interns honing their skills outside of the classroom while eyeing their dreams of working in sports along with much more that the SwampBats bring to the community in the summertime.

Without the SwampBats playing this season, the first time since the franchise began playing back in 1998, the city will have a different feel throughout the warm summer months that the sport of baseball has embodied for its entirety.

Now, one week has passed since the announcement came down from the league’s board of directors on May 1, and those with direct ties to the organization have had some time to soak in what the decision means for how they approach the months ahead.

Melissa and Alan Stroshine were a host family of the SwampBats for 10 years, starting when their son was 9 years old. Now he is 21, and their daughter is a three-sport athlete in high school who plays lacrosse in the spring and had her season canceled due to similar reasons. Working at an elementary school, Melissa knows the draw of the SwampBats.

“I work in an elementary school and I know the little children love it,” Melissa Stroshine said. “It gives us something to do in the summer. I volunteer there. I help with the popcorn and ice cream. It is a very wonderful organization to support. I am sad for the players. These boys work hard, and they look forward to a summer, and I’m sad that these players won’t have a fun summer.”

Joe Fitzhenry was a play-by-play broadcaster with the SwampBats and did some media relations work during his time with the organization.

“When I got to Keene, I got so much hands-on experience. You’re doing every single game, you travel with the team and do all the home games,” Fitzhenry said. “You are recording radio spots for the radio station in Keene. The SwampBats are one of the few teams that have all their games on the radio, which is unique. I got to do pre-game and post-game interviews. It was an amazing experience and one that will be missed there this summer for sure.”

Fitzhenry spent three and a half years in minor league baseball as well, two seasons with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the AAA affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies and a partial season with the Bowie Baysox, the AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles organization.

Now Fitzhenry is the Assistant Sports Information Director at the University of Scranton.

Fitzhenry’s favorite memories during his time in Keene were the playoff runs.

He also enjoyed being around the fellow interns, players, coaches and having the opportunity to consume plenty of baseball talk with those around the organization.

Before Fitzhenry even arrived in Keene, he had heard about how high-class the organization was in terms of collegiate summer baseball.

“The players are really treated like they’re Red Sox players in the community,” Fitzhenry said. “You realize how much Keene really cares about the team and how much they buy in. It’s really cool and really unique to get an opportunity to experience that for the summer.”

Sara Pelkey, a graduate from Monadnock Regional High School spent time playing collegiate softball at Daniel Webster College and then the University of New England.

Pelkey’s family was a host family in 1999, the second year of the franchise. She interned with the Swamp Bats for two summers and then served as the team's director of operations for four years, this past season being her last with the team.

While Pelkey is moving on from her position with the team, she knows that even though this season is canceled, there will not be a beat missed moving ahead.

“It gives us a lot of time to prepare for 2021 but we were coming off a championship year in 2019 so I know the SwampBats had a lot of fire and were excited,” Pelkey said. “But we’re going to have wait until 2021 and I think there’s still going to be a lot of energy.”

Despite that, like others, Pelkey wishes there were still going to be a season.

“I wasn’t surprised, but I am feeling really sad, to be frank about it,” Pelkey said. “It’s been a huge part of my life for the last six years, and the SwampBats really have a special place in my heart. For a lot of people in the Monadnock Region, the SwampBats are the highlight of the summer.”

Beth and Arthur Merrill have been season ticket holders of the SwampBats since their first season back in 1998. They travel 35 minutes to go to the Swamp Bats games.

This will be the first summer that the two will not be able to experience baseball. While cable television offers the ability to watch other leagues, the Merrill's relied on going to the SwampBats games to consume the sport.

“My husband and I are sad. We’ve never had a summer without baseball so it’s going to be a new experience,” Beth Merrill said. “We only have a television with antenna, so we can’t even watch what baseball might be on television. The SwampBats was really our thing. It was something we really enjoyed doing together. It’s going to be an interesting summer without having their games to go watch.”

Corey Muscara, now the pitching coach for the University of Maryland, grew up in Manchester and always had the dream of playing for the SwampBats. One of his fond memories was when he was 13 years old, he got a chance to go watch the NECBL All-Stars face the Cape Cod League All-Stars. When Muscara thinks of the SwampBats, he points to a common theme that the organization has had during its 22 years as part of the league.

“Keene always has a good team. The two best teams over the time the NECBL has been around is Keene and Newport,” Muscara said. “I know they’re always going to be competitive. If my guys can go there, I know they can be part of a winning environment. That is so lost today. The way travel and amateur baseball is today, kids do not play to win enough anymore. I know when you go to Keene guys are going to play to win because that’s the expectation of the organization.”

Shamir Morales, a catcher for Bethune Cookman University, spent the summer of 2018 with the SwampBats organization.

He was planning to return this season. Morales recalls that summer being one of his best baseball experiences and was itching to get back to Keene for the 2020 season.

“All I felt in Keene was love,” Morales said. “After games we would go out to Applebee’s to eat and we’d have our SwampBats gear with us, and I can’t tell you how many people would stop and ask us how the game went or talk to us about the game because they were there. It was so much fun there, and when I had a chance to go back, I didn’t think about it twice.”

Randy Bednar Sr., the dad of Randy Bednar Jr., an outfielder for the University of Maryland and potential MLB draft pick, had nothing but good things to say about how the organization and city treats the SwampBats players throughout the summer.

Bednar, who lives in Maryland, made an eight-hour drive to Keene throughout the season to see his son and the team play and ultimately win the championship.

Randy Bednar Jr. was a key component in the SwampBats championship last year and has also been a staple in the Maryland offense.

During the SwampBats playoff run, Bednar Jr. hit .300, after a .337 batting average in the regular season.

“Kevin Watterson and the whole organization made sure the team had first class accommodations,” Bednar Sr. said. “I remember there was a hot summer day and the potential of the guys having to ride on a short bus, but Kevin made sure that didn’t happen. My son had an amazing time, as did the others, and I have nothing but great things to tell anybody about the entire Keene SwampBats organization.”

Henry Morelli grew up in New York, a state well-known for its historical relevance in baseball. In 1988, Morelli moved to Keene and went on to eventually serve on the board of directors for 10 years. He continues to volunteer for the organization occasionally.

It is unquestionably going to be a different summer for those who have become so enamored with the quality product the SwampBats have become known for during their years in the city. The loss has been felt by many, and now the only thing to look forward to is the return of the team in 2021 — again with the opportunity to repeat as league champions.

Morelli may have said it best. When he thinks of Keene, there are two things that specifically come to mind.

“When I think of Keene, I always think of the old pumpkin fest and the SwampBats,” Morelli said. “So anytime you hear that they are not playing, there’s definitely some sadness and disappointment. But you must be realistic about it too with the current COVID situation we are in. You have to do right by the host families and the players, so I think it was the right call.”